Environment, Talking Point

The air of despair

Documentary shines new light on the misery of China’s smog

Chai Jing w

On message: Chai as she appears in her widely-praised documentary

No one in China had seen anything like the TV series River Elegy. This politically-charged documentary was surprisingly produced by the state-run broadcaster CCTV. Even more unexpectedly, it was wildly popular.

Aired in June 1988, the six-part series set out to attack traditional Chinese culture in order to find answers to the country’s contemporary problems. Using the analogy of the Yellow River – the cradle of China’s ancient civilisation – the series concluded that the country needed to open itself to “blue oceans”, inferring a political shift modelled on the more liberal and open cultures of the West.

This was heady stuff. River Elegy was a state-sponsored questioning of China’s political system. The debates that it stirred about the country’s future raged in university discussion sessions and even led the opinionated to pin their views to notice boards, where students would copy them down (the closest things to today’s social media platforms). In a single week more than 200 million people watched one episode of the programme (an especially sensational figure in an era when a television was an unaffordable luxury for the majority of Chinese). The People’s Daily published transcripts of the show and to meet viewer demands CCTV aired it again.

The fact the series was televised at all was the result of a top-level power struggle in the Party. River Elegy was endorsed by the reformist faction because it fitted a more liberal agenda. Some prominent figures even praised the documentary publicly. But the sentiments that it stoked up led to student protests and the documentary has been banned since 1989.

This month a documentary by a former CCTV journalist appears to be reprising some of River Elegy’s socio-political impact. Under the Dome, a 103-minute investigative report on air pollution, was watched by more than 200 million people in the three days after it was released. For much of last week it was the dominant topic discussed on Chinese social media. Just like River Elegy’s path from semi-official favour to taboo subject, Under the Dome initially came in for praise from leading bureaucrats too. Butthen the mood suddenly changed, as the programme began to be taken down by the country’s major online video sites less than a week after it appeared.

What is the documentary about?

The film was produced by Chai Jing, a 39 year-old journalist known for her previous roles with CCTV. Chai earned her reputation for her to-the-point interviewing style, and was one of the various hosts to earn comparisons with Oprah Winfrey.

Now she is being bracketed in China more with Al Gore. Under the Dome features a softly spoken Chai addressing a live audience akin to a TED talk. Stylistically it’s something of a tribute to the 2006 Academy Award-winning environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai begins with China’s own inconvenient truth: an increasing number of newborn babies have tumours and are contracting pneumonia. There is no proven linkage of these grim statistics to the worsening air quality. But when Chai became pregnant in 2013 and discovered her own baby had a tumour (fortunately it was benign), she began to take a personal interest in the matter. She quit her job as a CCTV host in early 2014 to focus on two things: taking care of her daughter; and taking on a personal quest to uncover the costs and causes of China’s shroud of smog.

That’s why the programme is titled Under the Dome. The film basically asks three questions: what is smog, where does it come from, and what should China do about it?

Backed by scientific data and official figures, Chai delivers a daunting portrait of how pollution has become a major threat to public health. The documentary combines footage of visits to appalling factories with exclusive interviews with government and state-owned enterprise officials. In this way it openly criticises these state giants – including oil producers such as CNPC – as well as showing the apparent inability of the central government to act against some of the biggest polluters.

Chai delivers the hard facts with a skillful, emotional touch. “Have you seen the stars,” Chai asks one small girl in Shanxi province. “No,” replies the girl. The answer is the same when Chai asks if she has seen a blue sky, or white clouds. Of course, Shanxi is infamous as one of China’s most polluted provinces, due in large part to its massive coal industry.

And in a concluding note that also sounds similar to River Elegy, Chai suggests the government should learn from the experience of developed countries in the West. In particular, she looks at London’s Great Smog of 1952, the worst incidence of air pollution in British history, which led to drastic changes in environmental regulations.

Why is the programme such a smash hit?

Under the Dome says very little that we didn’t already know about China’s noxious haze. But the reason for the programme’s astonishing popularity is its strong imagery, as well as the skill with which Chai has paced and packaged the information. Southern Weekend adds that the scale of the viewership and the online commentary it provoked demonstrates how widespread concerns about air quality are.

The TV star said she invested Rmb1 million ($160,000) of her own money and more than a year of her time to make the film. But she says she’s not interested in commercial return; her goal is to raise awareness and force change.

Other media executives and internet firms promoted it when it was first released via the website of the People’s Daily and internet video firm Youku (both carried the documentary without charging a fee). In less than 24 hours it was viewed more than 40 million times on Youku alone, with more than 50,000 comments posted. On Chai’s own weibo account the video was shared 200,000 times. And when internet giant Tencent also shared the film on its social media platforms, viewing numbers went off the charts. The numbers were all the more stunning since the content is a serious two-hour effort and not the typical viral sensation (think a 20-second video clip of a cat attacking itself in a mirror).

“It is the first internet sensation of 2015. It has simply broken all records for news category videos,” reports the online newspaper Jiemian.

Timing is also a crucial factor and Chai picked an impeccable moment for her investigative report. Under the Dome hit social media the second day after China’s new minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, took office (more about this rising star in Chinese politics later). Perhaps more importantly, the film was released just a couple of days ahead of Beijing’s annual legislative session (known as the “Two Meetings”).

“Chai released a stun grenade during the Two Meetings. It simply exploded into the top of the agenda for delegates gathering ‘under the dome’ in Beijing,” Taiwan’s United Daily News opines.

Ironically when the Two Meetings’ key session convened at the beginning of the month, the haze above Beijing was gone. Tighter emissions controls had probably helped to scrub the sky cleaner, as they did with the period of “APEC blue” last year (see WiC260). Sure enough, netizens at first dubbed the clearer air as “Two Sessions blue” or even as “William blue” (a reference to the visiting Duke of Cambridge). But as the programme’s audience grew, a more popular term appeared: Chai Jing blue.

“Thank you Chai Jing. Every leader, delegate and government official would have to watch this video before going to the Two Meetings,” Phoenix TV suggested.

Who likes it and who doesn’t?

One major fan turned out to be the new environmental minister Chen Jining. In fact he was one of the early promoters of Chai’s work.

“I had already watched the documentary and sent a text message to Chai to thank her for raising public attention on environmental issues,” Chen told journalists a day after the documentary was published. The 51 year-old Imperial College London graduate even compared Chai’s effort with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a seminal work that reshaped American environmental policy after sparking a furore over the excessive use of pesticides in the 1960s.

Chinese netizens wanted those overseas to watch it too, and collaborated to put up a special edition with English subtitles, which soon appeared on YouTube.

The film, and Chai herself, now both have Wikipedia entries.

However, at home, critics were starting to emerge too. Some speculated whether Under the Dome was a truly independent film, arguing it must be state-backed propaganda, albeit of a slick kind never seen before.

“If it is independent, would it still be possible for the documentary to include so many exclusive interviews with officials, and the appalling footage of the state energy plants?” a blogger at Sina questioned. A columnist even wrote on the BBC’s Chinese website that “from head to toe there are secretive shadows of the Chinese government” behind Chai’s production.

TV viewers old enough to recall the original frenzy over River Elegy began to compare the two documentaries. “It is interesting to see the reappearance of a political documentary after all these years,” China Economic Information, a think tank under the State Council, remarked on its Sina Weibo account. “River Elegy denied the traditional cultural system, and Under the Dome denies the traditional economic model. Both have appeared at a time when something is wrong with the Chinese economy. ”

As such, Under the Dome may well intensify the infighting between government bodies, including the conflicting agenda of those focused on environmental protection and those more concerned with energy provision. Officials from the powerful energy firms, the major villains in Chai’s film, will have been taken aback by the public reaction. They and the more conservative factions in government have likely argued that the documentary risked fomenting social unrest, and succeeded in having it taken down. An interview with Chai on the website of the People’s Daily was removed along with a posting of the film itself, and earlier last week there were directives to media outlets to prohibit any more reporting on it.

So will anything change?


In all likelihood Chai’s film and the high profile media campaign that initially surrounded it could not have been possible without some form of official approval. That much is an encouraging sign, revealing that the higher echelons of the central government see the need for real changes to China’s heavily polluting economic model.

This year China will also impose its “toughest environmental protection laws ever”, according to the Global Times. Of course, similar promises have been made before and not been fulfilled (something that Chai mentions in her documentary). Optimists counter that there are signs of more commitment this time, including definitive timetables. For instance, local governments are required to scrap rules that hinder environmental law enforcement (effective from June), while projects that violate the new rules must be cancelled by the end of next year. Polluters will suffer more severe punishments and have their identities made public.

These new rules will pit the environmental ministry against powerful interests at local government level, as well as some of the largest state energy and industrial firms. So could the airing of Chai’s documentary be a sign that the central authorities want to soften up the major polluters such as CNPC and Sinopec, and even put them on “the chopping board” as Taiwan’s Apple Daily speculates. Both firms have resisted tougher emission standards in the past.

Investors have been taking heed too. The share prices of CNPC and Sinopec both fell more than 3% in Shanghai the day after Under the Dome’s release. And with other investors chasing stocks that could benefit from greater environmental protection efforts, Bloomberg was reporting that at least two “green energy entrepreneurs” became US dollar billionaires this week, with 18 “green stocks” jumping by their daily limits on the Chai effect.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal thinks there is a strong possibility that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his allies were backers of Chai’s venture, seeing it as a means to push ahead with their plans for economic reform.

However, the Journal also suggests that if Xi has to look outside the Party’s own propaganda apparatus to advance such an agenda, it’s a reminder that “internal divisions persist”.

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